A magical tree – the rowan

The rowan tree

The is something magical about the rowan tree (sometimes called the mountain ash). The way it changes the colour of it’s leaves in stages, the dense inflorescences of the flower heads and the subsequent startlingly bright bunches (or corymbs) of fruit. It is, without a doubt, one of the most popular trees of folklore, with many names – mountain ash, ruan, witch wood, Rudha-an (Gaelic for ‘red one’) etc.  The rowan is found all over my native Derbyshire, especially in the Peak District.

The wood is dense and said to be the prefered material for a wizard’s staff (although the author Terry Pratchett says that sapient pearwood is prefered, see the song, ‘A Wizard’s Staff Has A Knob On The End’), and magic wands, and divining rods.

Despite the common name ‘mountain ash’, the tree is no relation at all to the ash, Fraxinus excelsior, being a member of the Rosaceae family and thereby related to the hawthorn, apple, pear, quince and cotoneaster. The example you can see here is of Sorbus aucuparia, the European rowan, and is standing outside my relatives’ home in Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

The fruit of the rowan is a favourite of many birds such as various members of the thrush family, and the waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus. Since the berries contain high levels of parasorbic acid, a bitter chemical which can be harmful to humans (it can cause kidney damage), they are best not eaten raw. However, they can be eaten quite safely after cooking, (the heat alters the parasorbic acid to non-toxic sorbic acid) and are usually made into a tart jelly (for meats) or in a jam or chutney along with other fruit.

During World War Two, Britain was under severe rationing restrictions due to a lack of shipping and losses to German U-Boats. A Ministry of Food was established, which controlled rationed foods, and gave out information to aid those preparing it. In a 1941 ‘Food Fact’ leaflet they sang the praises of the rowanberry, “Rowanberry conserve is a great favourite in Scotland. It is rather like cranberry.”

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